BLACKSBURG, VA. — The number of college students in the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps has grown 50 percent since the 2005-06 school year, with the Army outpacing its goals for minting new officers as it sees a surge of patriotism at schools across the country.
The Army is in the waning stages of war and has largely stopped growing, yet its ROTC program is reaching near-historic highs for enrollment. Partly the result of increased scholarship and recruitment efforts of years ago, the Army has been welcoming the new officer candidates and funneling them into active duty and the Reserves and National Guard. College campuses, some of which spurned ROTC for years, now are embracing the military programs, as students look for leadership opportunities, financial help and the chance for service.
The phenomenon is especially noticeable on Virginia Tech’s campus. Normally, yearly Army ROTC enrollment is about 110 to 120 students. This year, about 150 showed up to end-of-the-summer training, making it one of the largest classes the university has seen since the Vietnam War.
Col. David W. Chase, who oversees the program, was stunned. There was no clear reason for the increase, so when Chase had everyone gathered in an auditorium, he asked: Why? Why are you here?
There wasn’t just one answer: Many students have parents or relatives in the military, and some came here after not getting into a service academy. Others were enticed by the possibility of scholarship money and a job after graduation. Some were looking for leadership training that could bolster their résumés, or they wanted the structure and rigor of Virginia Tech’s Corps of Cadets.
And then there were a lot of students looking for a way to serve their country.
“ ‘Serve’ is a word that kept coming up,” said Chase, who spent more than 20 years in the Army and has been at Virginia Tech since 2010. “This generation we are getting in here is so patriotic. . . . They were 6, 7 years old on 9/11, and they have grown up during the war on terror. They’ve seen the unbelievable support for service members.”
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Army saw national ROTC enrollment jump from 28,470 during the 2000-01 school year to more than 30,800 two years later. But as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq waged on, the number steadily dropped to a low of 24,312 in 2005-06.
About that time, the Army increased its goal for the number of new officers and pumped more money into scholarships and recruitment. Enrollment has been steadily ticking up since, reaching a high of 36,474 the past school year.
The Army says it is now outpacing its mission after years of falling short of meeting its commission goal or barely beating it. During the 2011-12 school year, the Army commissioned 5,880 officers and reservists, surpassing its goal of 5,350. That number is expected to increase in coming years as large incoming classes mature.
Meanwhile, the number of commissions from the Navy and Marine Corps ROTC has increased, but enrollment is steadily dropping. Air Force ROTC enrollment has fluctuated, but the number of commissions has held fairly steady.
“I’d like to know what the Army is going to do with all of these people, because the Army is shrinking,” said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who specializes in U.S. defense strategy. O’Hanlon said the Army statistics appear to show the growth the Army was aiming for, and he said the numbers likely will stabilize.
Army officials say students can choose between active duty or serving in the Reserve or National Guard, although not all students who want to serve on active duty are selected for it. The Army varies that number, depending on the service’s needs. Of last year’s 5,880 Army ROTC graduates, 3,465 — or about 59 percent — went on active duty.
The Army doesn’t track the reasons students join, but officials said the motivations that Virginia Tech students cite are reflected nationally.
At Old Dominion University, Army ROTC leaders credit their more than 200 percent growth over six years to school administrators who provided more funds for scholarships and staff and cultivated a campus culture that values and supports the ROTC, said Lt. Col. Brian Kerns, who oversees Army ROTC.
Over the past decade, ROTC leaders have made an effort to better communicate with their host colleges, Kerns said. And, in turn, the academics have come to see the ROTC as a program that can help recruit and retain students as well as push them to attend classes and keep up with their studies and graduate on time.
“My experience in Iraq helps me here on campus. Not in combat, but in understanding different cultures,” said Kerns, who was named “employee of the month” by ODU’s president. “As Army officers, we have to be open-minded about the campus culture.”
The role of the economic recession can’t be ignored. But it’s not just the promises of scholarships and post-graduation jobs that entice students, said Lt. Col. Christopher P. Talcott of Texas Christian University, which has seen the most growth of any school in recent years. TCU’s Army ROTC enrollment increased more than 280 percent in six years.
“The money might be attractive at the beginning, especially for parents, but I’m telling you: With the hours we have them doing stuff, that scholarship goes quickly,” Talcott said. “It has to be something more keeping them here.”
Harvard Business Review devoted much of its November 2010 issue to leadership lessons from the military, bringing corporate respect to experience that veterans or ROTC graduates can bring to the private sector. Some ROTC leaders think the message stuck and made it easier for them to push their students for top internships, fellowships, jobs at the State Department or admission to medical, law or business schools.
At Virginia Tech, it’s not just the Army ROTC that has seen growth. The school also has higher enrollment in a citizen leader program, which makes up about 20 percent of the Corps of Cadets. These students are treated no differently than ROTC members. They live together in the university’s historic upper quad and dress in uniform.
This year’s corps — which includes all the service ROTCs — started the school year with 1,066 cadets, the largest it has been since 1968. For the first time in years, cadets filled all of the rooms in the four residence halls on the upper quad, sometimes temporarily having to go three to a room made for two.
Virginia Tech has strong roots as a military training ground, and the centerpiece of campus is a historic drill field. Today it is one of six senior military schools, a list that includes Texas A&M and the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va. And although the school has long had a high commission rate, it often had difficulty in recent decades filling the Corps of Cadets. In the 1990s, an alumni group started a “1000 in 2000” campaign to get the number of cadets over 1,000 by the millennium. It failed.
The newest cadets gave varying reasons for joining — and for sticking around past “red phase,” the first and most intense wave of training.
“It’s getting harder and harder to get a job, and it’s getting harder and harder to get into the military,” said Frank Gradzki, 18, of New Jersey. “It’s always a job that’s going to be there.”
Natasha Laramie, 18, of Sterling joined the Army ROTC because she thinks it will help her work for the State Department eventually. She picked Virginia Tech because the corps allows her to get a full military school experience and leadership training but she can still attend a major state school and get the typical college experience.
“It’s definitely a lifestyle change. I usually don’t get up at 4 a.m. to go running,” Laramie said as she walked to her dorm room with a care package from her boyfriend. “My mom was a little worried at first . . . but she knows this sets me up really well for the future.”